Easter 'super spreader' events could trigger third Covid-19 wave in SA
The Covid-19 third wave is coming.
The concern is that super spreader events allowed over Easter may trigger a tide of new infections.
In a couple of weeks or months, a third Covid-19 wave is set to hit South Africa. But as yet, academics don’t know how deadly or wide spread it will be.
Currently the number of Covid-19 infections is falling, and South Africans are enjoying the last days of summer after lockdown restrictions were eased. But, in a couple of weeks or months, stricter lockdown restrictions are likely to return as the country experiences a new surge of Covid-19 infections.
“They are difficult to predict. A lot of it depends on human behaviour and super spreader events,” explained Professor Alex van den Heever, the Chair in the field of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies at the Wits School of Governance. “What could trigger a surge is something like a long weekend.”
Professor Shabir Madhi, Executive Director of the Wits Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit warned that this could happen even in the next month or so.
“It is highly probable that it will start in May and June when we head into the cooler months, as people are more likely to gather indoors. But if people start gathering during that Easter period, then we might expect it to occur earlier,” he said.
Several European countries in the last couple of days have seen what is likely to be the start of a new wave of the virus, with up ticks in infection rates. This has been driven by the so-called Kent variant of the Covid-19 virus, that originated from the South Eastern corner of the UK.
Unlike countries in Europe, South Africa will face the next wave with a very small portion of the population having been vaccinated.
“The problem that we have is that we are once again permitting large gatherings,” says Van den Heever.
Speaking to the Saturday Star yesterday, Madhi said, that the severity of the new surge may be driven by a new variant of the virus that has mutated.
“It also depends on what happens to the virus, if the virus undergoes further mutations, and if those mutations become resistant to the immune responses that are induced by the current variant and earlier variants,” he explained.
But, while most South Africans will be facing the coming surge without having been vaccinated, the head of the College of Public Health Medicine: Covid Task Team, Dr Nandi Siegfried, hoped that enough vaccines would have arrived in the country to give the nation’s healthcare workers effective protection from the disease.
The rest of the population will have to depend on non- pharmaceutical measures that have become rather familiar to us over the last year.
“We need to prepare for a similar scenario as before, but hope that with our knowledge – based on evidence as we understand more - we can work to prevent transmission with simple practices like hand-washing, keeping 1.5 metres apart and masks,” she said.
The good news regarding vaccines was that yesterday Wits University announced the results of the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trials in South Africa and the UK. They found high levels of efficacy against original, and the South African and UK variants of Covid-19.
However, the problem researchers face is that there are still so many unknowns about the virus. One of these unknowns is how many South Africans were reinfected with the virus during the second surge.
Van den Heever said that no such figures are publicly available, and this would help in understanding if immunity to the original Covid-19 virus, proved essential in fighting off the variant, which immunity can help curtail the third wave.
But one of the positives to emerge from the second surge of the Covid 19 virus, believes Van den Heever, was to learn how effective a lockdown can be to help reduce infections.
“On December 27, the restrictions are introduced and then from about January 11 to 13, you see a downward trajectory in all provinces - and that, you didn't see in the first surge. That suggests it is directly related to the intervention and this targeted gatherings,” he said. “So, if we see another surge happening, and we adopted an equivalent set of restrictions for a two week period, we could potentially halt the surge.”
The problem though, he added, is that it took weeks before the restrictions were put in place.
But ultimately, believes Alex Welte, research professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University, it is again up to South Africans to pull together to fight a virus that is likely to be with us for a while.
Everyone has a role to play. Instead of being careless, he stressed that all South Africans be cautious.
“The mask problem of today is yesterday’s condom problem. We know it’s not comfortable, but please keep your masks on,” Welte said.